Editorial: Public wins in Oak Harbor public meeting decision

The Whidbey News-Times’ little dispute with the city of Oak Harbor over the Open Public Meetings Act is finally over, with the state Attorney General’s office ruling that the newspaper was correct in objecting to how the city is conducting some of its meetings. But it was a victory for the people, not the newspaper, because they will now be living under a more open government.

City council subcommittees were allowing other council members to attend, creating a majority and, in essence, a special meeting of the full council. The city tried to get around objections to this policy by calling all subcommittee meetings regular meetings, which would allow any council member to attend. To their credit, the council members avoided this rather sneaky approach to meetings and a majority was never in attendance at a subcommittee meeting. But it was legal under the city’s ordinance, and it was not right.

The Attorney General’s decision means the city will have to rework its ordinance to assure that subcommittee meeting do not become, in effect, regular meetings, and that any time a majority of the council members plan to attend a meeting, a special meeting with its notification requirements be called.

It’s important that the public know when and where the City Council will be meeting, what kind of meeting it is and what kind of action will be allowed. Mayor Jim Slowik showed some poor leadership in setting up the subcommittee rules but, to his credit, he agreed to abide by the Attorney General’s interpretation of that law. He didn’t propose that the City Council maintain its position and waste taxpayer dollars on any potential future lawsuit.

This dispute has dragged on for months. City council members Jim Campbell and Scott Dudley came out of it looking good because they voted against the ordinance that stirred up all the controversy. They’re not legal experts, but they refused to set aside their instinctive sense of right and wrong just to get along with the majority.

As for the mayor and other council members, they have to get on the right track quickly, start taking the Open Public Meetings Act seriously, and get on with the serious business of running a city.

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